One of the first things I wondered the first time I went to Salem on Halloween was, “How did this happen?” It’s an interesting question and not so simple to answer. So, I put together a series examining the question from every angle. Here’s part 1!
How Salem Became Halloween Central Part 1 Full Transcript Below
Hello witches and welcome to Salem Massachusetts, the weirdest place on earth. Today we’re diving deep into the first segment of a three-part mystery. We all know Salem is the most celebrated Halloween destination in the United States. In fact, it frequently comes in second for Halloween tourism in the entire world, just behind Derry, Ireland. But how did this happen?
For centuries the town did everything it could to avoid discussing the Witch Trials at all. On a personal note, I’ve even had a conversation with a Salem shop owner who vividly detailed how all the way up until the day she died, her grandmother who’d spent her entire life in Danvers (which is relevant because a lot of the activity of the Salem Witch Trials actually occurred in Danvers, not present-day Salem) would barely talk about the witch hysteria. And when she did broach the subject, it was met with disdain, avoidance, and disgust at the burgeoning industry celebrating or maybe even glorifying the city’s dark past.
So what happened? How did we go from a Salem that avoided these discussions at all costs to one that hosts half a million people in October and has so adopted the symbols of its murderous past that they’re literally plastered on Police uniforms? The answers to those questions are fascinating. Let’s begin, as all great things do, with television.
Bewitched and Salem
Let’s talk Bewitched. It may seem silly now, but this quirky little comedy was actually pretty groundbreaking for its day. The sitcom debuted in 1964 and followed the adventures of married couple Darrin and Samantha Stephens. They were like many young American couples in the 60’s: simple, raising a child, and trying to put up with a seemingly ever-present mother-in-law. Oh, and Samantha’s a witch and the marriage is bi-special, because apparently witches aren’t human. This little sitcom went a long way toward transforming the popular culture of the day and its ripples extend out far beyond the decades in which it aired. In my opinion, if you like Buffy or The Craft or Salem or The Witches of Eastwich or a whole host of other spooky, interestingly witchy media, you have Bewitched to thank for the cultural space in which such things were not only allowed, but celebrated.
But for our purposes, Bewitched really succeeded in three ways, each of which helped to kick off the transition of Salem toward its present-day Halloween madness. These were: 1) It featured two very powerful and self-determined women, both of whom were generally treated as strong and independently-minded members of society. 2) It glorified, celebrated, and even poked fun at the idea of witchcraft. And 3) In a very popular story arch, the show featured Salem itself.
Now, before we talk more about Bewitched, if you’re a Salem-lover, there’s likely one question in your head right now: What about The Crucible? Arthur Miller penned the brutal fictionalization of The Salem Witch Trials in 1952 and it was as much connected to his time as it was the Puritans’. And it’s true that the play did begin to replant Salem in the social fabric of the American quilt.
Salem in the 1950s
But, Salem itself was still very much in their quiet place about the hysteria. When Miller visited Salem to research for the play, he even remarked, “You couldn’t get anyone to say anything about it.” And, at the time of Miller’s writing, Salem was not doing so hot. Its maritime industry was already dried up for the most part and manufacturing wasn’t going so great either – and then there was suddenly this play which discussed on a national stage a part of its history that it was still very much ashamed of. One couldn’t fault a 1950’s Salemite for perhaps believing some long-tortured spirit was enacting centuries-old vengeance on the city for the evils of its past.
Then Bewitched came along in the 60’s. The show’s writers decided to set a number of episodes there. Samantha and crew venture back in time to the days of the Witch Trials. There, she is promptly accused of and admits to being a witch. Then, using her considerable guile and charms, she both escapes execution and levels the Salem villains by exclaiming, “The people that you persecuted were guiltless. They were mortals, just like yourselves. You are the guilty.”
The Salem chapter of Bewitched was a massive success for the show. And the residents of the town would later realize, albeit with some opposition because this is Salem after all, just how important it had been to their present-day successes. And this is in part why the Samantha Stephens statue was dedicated in Salem in 2005.
What’s Next for Halloween in Salem?
It didn’t take long before the influence of the show became commercialized in Salem. And the renewed cultural focus that Bewitched in many ways sparked, had some unexpected benefits. From here, there are two crucial components to the evolution of Salem between the 1960’s and today: 1) The American Halloween Explosion and 2) The Arrival of the Real Witches in Salem. And those two elements are what we’ll explore in Parts Two and Three of this mystery. Thanks for joining us for Part One and we’ll see you next time. Stay weird witches.